Chiddingstone Castle (Kent): not a castle but a Victorian-1950s museum

An Englishman’s home is his castle.  Or so they say.

If you don’t have a castle, seems some decide to call their houses castles anyway.  Remember Cliffe Castle in Yorkshire (a millowner’s house)?  That wasn’t a castle.

Do you think Sissinghurst Castle in Kent is a castle?  It is not.  It is the remnants of an Elizabethan double courtyarded manor house.

Chiddingstone Castle is also a pretender.  It is a medieval manor house with a Regency front.

Reason to visit: a good Japanese collection worthy of being the key reason to visit here.

Originally home to the Streatfeild  family and called High Street House, they pulled down the Tudor timber house and built a manor house in the 1670s.

In the early 1800s a portion of the manor house, the front door of which the main street for the village of Chiddingstone passed, was pulled down and a gothic revival bank of rooms added – one room deep.  As we sat in the car park we played a guessing game as to age.  I went for 1840s (it looks like it should be very early Victorian: the quality of workmanship isn’t high enough for the 18th century or even the early 1900s).  D guessed 1870.  We were surprised then to be told the façade we could see from the courtyard (I have spotted an early creamy stone piece peeping out from behind) was built in about 1800.  After a bit of “post-visit research” I now know that the work was started in the early 1800s but there wasn’t enough money to complete the design and so work wasn’t completed until 1830s.

When landscaped gardens were added the village street was moved, so that the ‘big house’ could have a lake.  The village can now be reached by a 2 minute walk, over a sweet bridge and the ‘lake’ (more like a big pond).  The National Trust own the row of ancient half-timbered houses in the village.  The village shop was for sale when we visited, claiming to be ‘The Oldest Shop in England’.

The Streatfeilds moved out in 1900, Lord Astor bought it in 1938, the armed forces occupied the house during the war and for a brief stint a school moved in.

In the 1955 a collector, Denys Bowers, then aged 50, bought the house for £6,000.  He had a 100% loan.  Who knows how he persuaded the bank.  He had started out as a bank clerk (so maybe he had a friend at the bank) and was particularly interested in Japanese lacquerware and the Stuarts (he said he was ‘the Great Pretender Reincarnated’!).  His plan was to open the house as a museum exhibiting his collections (the Japanese collection is very good, including swords, lacquer boxes, an inro and Samurai armour and masks) and repay the mortgage using entrance fees.

Bowers was in jail for a while having been convicted of attempted murder when he accidentally shot his girlfriend (his defence was that he took a loaded antique pistol with him to visit his girlfriend, who was about to leave him, to prove that without her in his life he would kill himself; he then accidentally shot her.  She didn’t die.  I wouldn’t have been able to keep my face straight if I were doing the summing up as his defence counsel).  Apparently he was more committed to his collections than his relationships and he therefore had little luck with women.  He did 9 years in jail but had been sentenced to life.  Bower’s study remains in situ with an exhibition about his life.  It is at the back of the property, face south and west.  The early 1800s frontage faces due north and is very cold: only 6 degrees Celsius inside when we were there!

The reception rooms house exhibitions: the Japanese ware, a sitting room with reproduction of oils depicting the Royals of the 17th century (this room is also used for weddings), a medieval-come-Victorian great hall, an exhibition of Buddhist items (Bowers was a buddhist), a bedroom (no doubt used by the brides), a second-rate Egyptian collection (but to be fair we were told the main collection has gone to America on loan during 2013: we visited on the first open day of the season so the new temporary exhibition hadn’t been fully installed) and then the earlier kitchen block, which apart from the Japanese items is the best bit, if not generic in the sense that I’ve seen many other kitchens of this ilk.

The house rambles a bit: there is a rose garden in a courtyard, a warm kitchen around another corner, another internal courtyard with tables and chairs, and a humour sign (if you know who Bansky is) saying “Please exit via the Gift Shop”, leading to a turret where if I were the shopkeeper I would have fallen asleep.  I bought some ‘Kent Pear Juice’.

There are plans to add a Japanese stroll garden into the landscaped gardens.  Hence the sweet bridge we walked over into the village and a very new winding path, which D liked.

When visited: March 2013

House * out of 5: **

Garden * out of 5: **

Theme tune: The Great Pretender

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